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Targeting Life in Idlib: HRW report on Syrian-Russian strikes on Civilian infrastructure

In October 2020, Human Rights Watch released a 167-page report titled ‘Targeting Life in Idlib’. In it, the NGO claimed that the targeting of civilian infrastructure in the rebel-held Idlib province, Syria, by the Syrian-Russian Alliance may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

According to the report, the brutal attacks that employed improvised ‘barrel bombs’, cluster munitions, and incendiary weapons have killed over 1,600 civilians and displaced a further 1.4 million people – around half of the total population of Idlib.

Beyond displacement, destruction and killings, there are many other long-term impacts of such destruction – the report claims – on those who survive, such as the physical and mental disabilities that many, including young children, now living in the camps in Northern Syria now struggle to live with every day.

The report calls for action against ten senior Syrian and Russian civilian and military officials who may be implicated repeated attacks that took place across 11 months between April 2019 and March 2020. Such attacks are, at a minimum, a violation of international humanitarian law which protects civilian objects, requiring all parties to an armed conflict to distinguish between civilian objects and military objectives, and to refrain from targeting civilian buildings and infrastructure.

The report states that the senior figures knew or should have known about the abuses and “took no effective steps to stop them or punish those directly responsible”. Both Syrian and Russian officials have denied that their operations violated international law.

Human Rights Watch explains in the report that the explosive weapons used repeatedly throughout Syria by Russian and Syrian forces on populated areas pose one of the gravest threats to civilians in the conflict. This is clearly exemplified by the use of cluster munitions – large air or ground delivered weapons that spread over the size of a football field. Cluster munitions are one of the most indiscriminate forms of explosive weapons, which pose an immediate threat to civilians. The small bombs randomly scatter, unable to distinguish between combatants and civilians. Often the ‘bomblets’ that spread don’t explode on impact and then become de facto landmines which become a particular risk to small children. The report claims that Russian and Syrian forces have been documented to use at least 13 different types of these widely banned cluster munitions across over 674 attacks  between 2012 and 2018, and have been used in these recent attacks, highlighting the apparent disregard for life by the military strategy.

The document reported 46 attacks during the period but Human Rights Watch claim that this number only represents a fraction of the military campaign in Idlib and neighbouring areas. The targets of the attacks included schools, hospitals, and markets. The report states that the attacks have disable civilian life to the point that Idlib is no longer inhabitable. It continues that there is a clear need to investigate the broader military strategy behind these attacks as the targeted areas showed no clear military objectives.

The report also claims that “no apparent military objective suggests that these unlawful attacks were deliberate. The intent may have been to deprive local residents of the means to sustain themselves, to force the civilian population to flee and make it easier for Syrian ground forces to take territory, or simply to instil terror in the civilian population as a way to achieve victory”.

In March and again in July, the United Nations Human Rights Council Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria (COI) directly implicated Russia in War Crimes due to their unlawful attacks on civilian infrastructure in Syria. Due to the deadlock in the UN Security Council preventing the issue reaching the International Criminal Court, Human Rights Watch strongly recommends that the General Assembly its members to impose targeted sanctions (such as asset freezes) on the military commanders credibly implicated in these attacks and other war crimes, crimes against humanity and other violations in Syria, calling on the international community to take a unilateral approach to stop these violations happening again.

With Human Rights Watch, AOAV is a founding member of the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW).

We believe, as our data clearly routinely shows, that the use of explosive weapons in populated areas causes severe harm to individuals and communities. We believe that this suffering can and should be reduced so that unnecessary deaths and injuries can be prevented. We call on States to cease the use of explosive weapons in towns and cities.